If you think that upright kettlebell rows are safer for your rotator cuff when compared to upright barbell rows, you are very mistaken.
Here’s why you should avoid either exercise.
But let’s focus on the upright kettlebell row, since many people prefer the kettlebell for many strength training movements – and also because you might be thinking this actually is safer for your shoulder than using a barbell or pulleys.
Whatever your goals – be they stronger shoulders, bigger shoulders or more toned or shapelier shoulders – you absolutely do NOT need to include any type of upright row movement to achieve these goals.
Two Reasons You Should Ditch the Kettlebell Upright Row
#1. Internal rotation of the shoulder joint. This will occur either with a single kettlebell held by both hands or a KB in each hand.
The risk is shoulder impingement, which involves the rotator cuff.
The motion closes up the joint space and crowds out the tendon of the supraspinatus muscle, causing it to rub on bone. This can eventually “fray” the surface of the tendon.
Internal rotation in this fashion is unnatural. When’s the last time you had to perform an upright row movement to pick something up in everyday life, let alone do it repeatedly?
No matter what you’re lifting or carrying around the house or on the job (babies, kids, garbage, furniture, boxes, rocks), you’re not going to use an upright row motion.
Someone who simply has no sense in how to properly lift something might actually upright-row it (I’ve seen children doing this with bags of garbage), but that doesn’t mean this is a natural or safe motion for the shoulder joints.
#2. Fails to mimic everyday movements. As just mentioned, this is not a natural motion.
Now before you point out that many popular strength training exercises do not mimic everyday activities, such as the leg curl, leg extension, triceps extension, skull crusher and decline press, you must realize that these other exercises aren’t nearly as risky as the kettlebell upright row.
Even with a light weight, the KB upright row can hurt the rotator cuff.
Though heavy leg extensions and a heavy decline, incline or flat press can strain the working joints and possibly injure tendons, this would much more likely occur using a very heavy weight (relative to the person’s strength and conditioning).
Upright rows with even a very light kettlebell will still crowd out the supraspinatus tendon, potentially fraying it.
You Won’t Miss Anything
You will not miss out on getting stronger, getting caps, getting definition or attaining any other goal by foregoing the upright row with a kettlebell or other implement.
Simply stick to the basic shoulder exercises – and always make sure you employ excellent form.
The rotator cuff is not immune to injury from “safe” shoulder exercises. You still need to warm up and not get ahead of yourself with weight loads.
Replacement exercises for the kettlebell upright row include the standing barbell and dumbbell press, seated dumbbell press, seated machine press, standing cable pulley press, front and side dumbbell raise, and front and side cable pulley raise. Avoid internal rotation with side and front raises.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained clients of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health.